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Op-Ed: State Legislation Would Preserve Nature on NJ’s Highways

Plants native to New Jersey can serve the needs of the state while reducing economic and ecosystem risks posed by nonnative vegetation

kelly mooij
Kelly Mooij

New Jersey Audubon celebrates the strong bipartisan action of the state Senate, which has overwhelmingly supported legislation that reduces the threat of invasive plant species on our state’s roadsides.  

The bill (S-227), advanced in partnership with Save Barnegat Bay, would require the Department of Transportation (DOT), the New Jersey Turnpike Authority (NJTA), and the South Jersey Transportation Authority (SJTA) to use native vegetation for landscaping, land management, or habitat restoration. Native plants provide a greater benefit to wildlife, allowing it to thrive, while reducing ecosystem risks and economic impacts posed by nonnative vegetation.  

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While not all nonnative plant species become invasive, at best they do not provide critical food resources for New Jersey wildlife such as pollinators, offer little habitat value, and may compete with native plants. Meanwhile, native plants provide berries, seeds, and nectar to wildlife throughout many seasons, while requiring fewer chemical inputs and water to maintain because they are perfectly adapted to New Jersey’s environment.  

The spread of invasive species is cited as the second leading cause of global biodiversity loss, second only to direct habitat loss. When nonnative species become invasive, they can disrupt natural ecosystem processes such as hydrology, nutrient cycling, wildfire regime, natural succession, and soil conservation. Invasive plants can also directly reduce crop yields and replace valuable forage plants.  

Invasive plants are also economically problematic by requiring control costs, such as increased mechanical control (mowing) and chemical control (herbicides).  In 2009, the annual cost of ecological damage and control of invasive plants in the United States was $137 billion.

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An example of inappropriate plant use in New Jersey involves weeping lovegrass, originally from southern Africa, and commonly used to provide erosion control for sandy soils. Because of its drought tolerance, it crowds out native grass species and has become a pest.  

At least as recently as 2009, the DOT standards for soil erosion and sediment control listed five seed-mix options approved for post-construction activities, and the majority of these seed mix options are nonnative grasses, and include the invasive African weeping lovegrass.  

As a result of deliberate planting, this noxious grass is now well established along State Highway 55 and has spread throughout roadsides in the Pinelands, choking out unique native flora. This bill would have prevented the use of weeping lovegrass, which is now degrading our native ecosystem.  

At a bare minimum, habitat plantings and projects conducted by the DOT, NJTA, and SJTA should not diminish the quality of our ecosystems or create potential costly management problems. By using only native vegetation for landscaping, land management, and habitat restoration, S-227 will reduce risks from nonnative species and help to improve the quality of our natural habitats.  

This legislation provides a golden opportunity to positively impact New Jersey’s environment by implementing a thoughtful and common-sense approach to planting and habitat projects.  Plants native to New Jersey can adequately serve the needs of DOT, SJTA, and NJTA while simultaneously reducing economic and ecosystem risks posed by nonnative vegetation.  

We salute the Senate for working to lay the groundwork for a habitat corridor on roadsides for migrating birds and butterflies.  The bill has two primary sponsors: Sens. Jim Holzapfel (R-Ocean) and Diane Allen (R-Burlington), as well as other sponsors in the Senate: Sens. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Union), and Kip Bateman (R-Somerset).  

We urge the state Assembly to pass this bill and quickly move it to the governor’s desk.

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Kelly Mooij is vice president for government relations at New Jersey Audubon.

Read more in Opinion, Winter 2016
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